JAEGER-LECOULTRE’s Reverso: Masterpieces On Your Wrist

JAEGER-LECOULTRE’s Reverso: Masterpieces On Your Wrist

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Hiren Kumar Bose on the Reverso Tribute Enamel Collection which ushers rare techniques to bring masterpieces in miniatures on limited edition watches

The watch Reverso was born to address a necessity—to keep the watch safe from any harm while the polo players took a shot or shielded one. No more restricted to those who wield the polo stick over the years Jaeger-Lecoultre has ushered Reverso as a portal to showcase the finest in miniature art.

The double-edged Reverso, launched way back in 1931, was a watch that could be turned face down without being removed from the wrist and was developed in response to complaints by English polo players in India that too often the glass in the watches broke during a game. It fell upon French designer René-Alfred Chauvot who invented a case that flipped 180 degrees to hide the crystal. True to its mechanism the model was named “Reverso (Latin for “I turn around”).

It had a patented mechanism that enabled it to be flipped over, face down, thus protecting the glass. In recent years, the concept of Reverso has been developed to create even more versatile timepieces with modern variations, including tourbillons, skeletons, and dual time-zone functions, and many have a dial with different functions on each side of the case, but all driven by a single movement.

Miniature enamel paintings used in the Reverso watches is a rare and most precious of all the pictorial arts. Each Reverso has a distinct piece of enamel art—figurative, landscape, seascape or ornamental-engraved on a canvas no bigger than a postage stamp! Crafting an enamelled miniature requires weeks of intense concentration, extraordinary patience, and manual dexterity.

In 2010, the 75th year of the Reverso I was fortunate to visit Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Manufacture, located in the scenic Vallee de Joux in the village of Le Sentier, Switzerland. Introduced to Myklos Merczel, one of the two enamellers, busy giving finishing touches to a Reverso model with her nibs and paints he told me: “It takes between two to three weeks on each painting.”

Miniature painting is the most elaborate form of enameling, which encompasses a variety of techniques including cloisonné, plique-à-jour, and champlevé. Enamel is, more or less, glass: a compound of silicates and other elements that are transformed into colourful, translucent film when baked at high temperatures. An enamel painter Using an extremely fine brush, an enamel painted applies enamel colour compounds and oil on a white enamel or mother-of-pearl surface. A scene emerges, layer by layer, as the artist works from light to dark colours.

A complex painting technique it requires firing after each layer of colour is applied. A detailed painting can undergo this process more than 20 times, and with every trip to the oven, the work is put at risk for cracks and discolourations. As enamel artist Merczel told me that day: “Having done our work and introduced the piece in the oven we just pray that nothing untoward happens.”

When completed, the multiple layers create almost palpable depth and brilliant contrasts that do not fade over time. The watch may look aged with time but antique enamel-painted artwork, many over a hundred years old, continue to look pristine. Merczel has been creating enamel dials for Jaeger-LeCoultre since 1992 and he heads the enamelling department, producing dials and also training the next generation of enamellers in order to preserve and evolve the craft.

This year Jaeger-LeCoultre has introduced enamel art watches under its ‘Metiers Rares’ Collection. The front has a finely hand-guillochéd dial, covered in translucent Grand Feu enamel and on the reverse, an enamelled miniature of a painting with a particular technique that is representative of an iconic style: pointillism, ink wash painting, or Japanese woodblock printing. In order to represent these three techniques, never before applied to enamel in miniature at Jaeger-LeCoultre, three of their greatest masters were selected through one of their works: Georges Seurat, Xu Beihong, and Katsushika Hokusai.

For these pieces of art, the Reverso Tribute Enamel, with its iconic Art Deco styling, was chosen. A case in white gold was created especially to host the enamel miniature.  Each of these models is issued in an eight-piece limited edition and available exclusively in Jaeger-LeCoultre Boutiques.

Reverso Tribute Enamel – Georges Seurat, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte
Reverso Tribute Enamel - Georges Seurat, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande JatteHere, the dial is guillochéd with small lozenges, which are embossed under a deep green translucent enamel. Hours of research were required in order for this colour to perfectly match the painting on the reverse.

Painted between 1884 and 1886, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte is one of the most beautiful examples of the pointillist technique created by Georges Seurat (1859-1891). A neo-impressionist French painter, Seurat was one of the leading lights of the art world in the 19th century. It took him two years to complete this nearly 2 by 3 metre canvas, for which he drew more than 60 sketches. The painting is set on the banks of the Seine, near Paris. The technique of pointillism used in this model consists of juxtaposing minuscule dots of colour, rather than using larger brushstrokes, with the spectator’s eye naturally “mixing” the colours.

In order to create this miniature, the artisan enameller had to take on a great number of challenges. The first was reproducing a more than 3-metre-wide painting onto a 3 cm2 surface. The enameller had to create his own pointillism technique. Several protective enamel layers had to be superimposed upon one another after the completion of the painting, altering the intensity of the colour of the piece. A darker shade than the original was used in order to plan for this. In total, more than 70 hours were required to finish this creation, not counting the initial hours of research for the perfect colour.

Reverso Tribute Enamel– Inspired by a painting by Xu Beihong
Reverso Tribute Enamel– Inspired by a painting by Xu BeihongIn this, the Grande Maison explored the art of ink wash painting. The dial was delicately guillochéd in lengthwise geometric patterns and covered in opalescent ivory-coloured enamel, rendered as subtle as mother-of-pearl.

Xu Beihong (1895-1953) was one of the most renowned painters of the 20th century in China. He was known for his oil paintings, his drawings, his pastels and his calligraphy. In China, his representations of horses made him very popular. The original, over 5-metre-wide painting shows ten horses galloping through a natural Chinese landscape. The enameller was inspired by the representation of two horses from the painting.

Again, there were several challenges in creating this miniature. The sense of movement, the fluidity and the lightness conveyed by the ink wash technique had to be reproduced despite the protective layers of the enamel, which reduce the image’s spontaneity. As such, the artisan spent many hours finding the right movement to best represent the horses’ energy. Additionally, it was a real challenge to portray the smallest details, such as the horses’ manes.

The result is striking, brimming with vitality and spirit, proof of the talent of the Grande Maison’s master enamellers.

Reverso Tribute Enamel – Katsushika Hokusai, The Great Wave off Kanagawa
Reverso Tribute Enamel – Katsushika Hokusai, The Great Wave off KanagawaThe Jaeger-LeCoultre artisans studied the technique of Japanese woodblock printing, of which Hokusai was a leading light. On the front, the dial is delicately guillochéd with small waves, like an echo of the drawing found on the reverse. It is then covered with a translucent enamel, coloured with a blue as deep as the ocean represented by The Great Wave off Kanagawa.

Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) was a Japanese artist known for his woodblock print series, Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji. It has remained iconic as it was the first time that the concept of perspective, drawn from Western painting, was integrated into the themes of the Japanese tradition of art. This series included The Great Wave off Kanagawa, which brought the artist fame not just in Japan, but in the rest of the world.

To achieve the desired colour as well as the tiniest elements which create the movement of the waves and the splashes of foam, without which the piece would lose all of its character and strength, was certainly a challenge. Also difficult was to reproduce a calm and smooth sky, without a single brushstroke appearing.

The challenges the enamellers encountered make these watches priceless.